Retro Gaming – Real Or Emulated?

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With the emphasis today on big budget blockbusters today for our supply of mainstream games, it’s no wonder than many gamers are turning to reliving their childhood through retro gaming or discovering classic games for the first time. The pick-up-and-play approach offered by older games lacking by their modern counterparts (an approach that is relished by the contemporary indie scene) provides many older games a timeless appeal. Modern games, in contrast, often have shorter lifespans with their story-driven narrative. Others, designed with annual releases and updates limit their long term appeal further.

So it’s no wonder why so many are drawn to retro gaming. For many the debate has been raging on for years as to whether it is best to play these games on original consoles and computers, or whether it is simple and easy enough to just play them on modern PCs under emulation…

Legality aside (which I’ll come onto later), there are pros and cons for each approach. One of the hardest to describe and quantify unless it’s one you have experienced for yourself is the “feel” of games running under emulation. No matter how good the emulator is, and how powerful the PC is running the software, sometimes the game just doesn’t feel right. You could use a USB controller styled to look and feel just like a Commodore 64 joystick and use a C64 emulator, but games still won’t always seem as if they are quite right somehow. Without the same custom hardware, you won’t get all the nuances offered by the original machine, the quirks and bugs found in the custom chips that programmers exploited to get the hardware to do things it wasn’t designed to do and graphics will never look 100% spot on. If you want 100% authenticity with your games, the only way to play them is on the real machine.

Unfortunately, in the case of many games the big problem is cost. As people moved on from their old systems, games and machines were thrown away with people seeing little or no value in them. When games were produced in their tens of thousands of copies back in the 80s and 90s, the number of remaining copies of many of these now is far less. While some games are easy to find and can be picked up for a couple of pounds each, some of the rarer titles can change hands for well in excess of a hundred pounds each. And people complain about the price of modern games!

The hardware is exactly the same on the cost front. Consoles and computers that were relatively inexpensive when first released, or even dropped down in price to next-to-nothing have now soared to astronomical prices. Commodore released a console version of the Commodore 64 in the 90s – the C64GS – but it proved to be a commercial failure. Within a few months of release it had dropped in price in stores from it’s original retail price of £99.99 to as low as £30 and subsquently most of the unsold stock were recalled and converted back into standard Commodore 64 machines for resale. In today’s market, they are highly sought after and a boxed console fetches in excess of £300!

There is also the added factor to consider that while most old computers and consoles were built to last – and certainly seem to be more sturdy than modern systems – many do have issues and need maintenance. Sega’s handheld Game Gear is notorious for problems with its sound developing faults with its speakers, the NEC PC Engine has known problems for long-term durability of its joystick port and of greater concern are most computers that have on-board clocks with battery backups (Amiga, Atari ST, Archimedes and old PCs). For gamers who are using the original hardware in its unaltered forms, these machines are now in excess of 20 years old and they are sitting on a gaming time bomb. These batteries are prone to leakages, certainly after such a prolonged period of time, and there have been thousands of horror stories told by gamers having found their computers damaged – sometimes beyond repair – after a battery leak. It has been the same from other internal components, usually capacitors on the motherboards so many of these older machines need urgent servicing to keep them in good working order.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the hardware that faces this sort of problem. While most gamers who are likely to turn to emulation will do so for games consoles and cartridges do seem to prove quite durable (as long as the metal contacts are kept in good, clean condition), it’s the 8-bit and 16-bit computer era that is of concern. With these games now 20-30 years old (or more in some cases), original copies are showing their age… badly. Forgetting the cost of some of the rare titles that I’ve already talked about, it’s the medium itself that they have been recorded on that is the real problem. The 8-bit era was dependent primarily (in the UK and Europe at least) on cassette with the 16-bit era relying on 3.5″ disks. The reason that emulation has become so popular amongst fans of the 8-bit and 16-bit systems isn’t just because of ease of use, but it’s also a practical issue… the games simply aren’t surviving the ravages of time.

While it’s still relatively easy to find working cassette games for most formats, depending on how well they have been stored and even 5.25″ disks used on most 8-bit computers, the same can’t be said for 3.5″ disks used by the Amiga, Atari ST, Archimedes and PC. Despite the face that the technology is more recent, 3.5″ disks don’t appear to be as durable as their predecessors and are prone to higher fail rates. Certainly buying second hand games can be a gamble as to whether or not you’ll be able to find working copies of games even if you can find the game you’re looking for. In fact, it’s a problem we’ve been hit with ourselves – at least one of the master copies of our own Amiga releases has fallen victim to disk errors and we have been frantically trying to find a replacement copy somewhere. If we can’t then one of our own Amiga releases has been lost to the mists of time.

In light of these problems, many 8-bit and 16-bit enthusiasts have turned to a hybrid solution. Using real hardware for the computer side of things, the games themselves are being run from game ROM files using SD cards, specially adapted drives and add-ons giving gamers the best of both worlds…

However, no matter what way you look at it, even though these classic games may be ten, twenty or even thirty years old in some cases, they are still subject to copyright. Many gamers don’t believe that there is anything wrong in running games under emulation. People often use the term abandonware to classify retro games that they download from the internet and to justify their use of old games in this way. The abandonware term was coined some years ago and allegedly refers to games where the publishers/developers have “abandoned” their rights to the games and have decided to make them freely available. In reality, no publishers have done this but such websites make assumptions about the availability of games after what they deem to be a period of several years after the console or computer’s demise.

This doesn’t mean that publishers haven’t made their games available, but they are few and far between. It’s easy to see both viewpoints from the gamers stance and the publishers. As a gamer, many classic games are either impossible to find to purchase or if they can buy the originals they are at over-inflated prices on the second hand market. If gamers do buy these, no money goes back to the original publishers. Infact, many of these titles are perceived to have such a small niche appeal that they would have little commercial value today.

From the publishers stance, however, there is an obvious need to protect their products. Many do make use of their titles over time either rereleasing them on other platforms, as part of retro compilations or updating them for contemporary audiences. An astonising 80 titles for the Megadrive were released embedded in the ATGames Sega Megadrive console so there’s a clear need to protect these by law. It’s been the same with smaller publishers, turning to their older releases to garner a steady stream of income through releases via Android and iOS and you only need to look at the PlayStation and Nintendo stores to see the number of classic games available for downloading.

While I can’t condone those who choose to opt for emulation by any means, for those who choose to only emulate titles officially it’s not all doom and gloom though. Many developers and publishers have chosen to make their old titles available freely. The entire Llamasoft back catalogue is available for download, Cinemaware released their entire 8-bit and 16-bit library several years ago, Team 17 made all of their Amiga titles freely distributable a few years back and many more have followed suit and here on this website we’ll be featuring several hundred titles that we have secured permission from publishers for.

Ultimately though, it’s not a clear cut option for gamers. For that authentic feel, it should be on the original hardware itself but with the software becoming increasingly scarce and unstable that choice isn’t as simple. The waters become ever muddier when you consider the range of plug and play devices now available offering that retro gaming experience allowing players to relive their youth with relative ease, and the multi-format consoles that can play games from a range of consoles make it even easier for people to get into retro gaming giving players the choice to use original cartridges from several consoles on one system and game ROMs by way of SD cards offering the best of both worlds.

For me, like Coca-Cola, it has to be the real thing and you’ll never be able to recreate the same experience as using the original hardware and software. However the reality is that we’re in an age where time is against some of the games we love. It may only be a matter of time before we have no choice but to keep our physical copies of older games in storage and preserve them for posterity and as treasured mementos but keep the gaming to something less fragile.

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Simon Plumbe

Husband, father and lifelong geek. Originally from the West Midlands, now spending my days in South Wales with my family and a house full of animals. Passionate about video games, especially retro gaming, the Commodore 64 and PlayStation Vita. Love pro wrestling, sci-fi and I'm an animal lover and vegetarian. Enjoyed this and my other articles? Why not buy me a coffee: http://ko-fi.com/simonplumbe